Cash vs. Stuff

February 11, 2020 § 13 Comments

Black and white cartoon. Person one: I can't decide what to be, a millionaire or an artist. Person Two: can't you just compromise? Be a millionaire artist or something.

by Hugh Macleod / Gaping Void

Thank you for your submission. We’d like to publish your essay.

The words every writer wants to hear. And yet…

I’d submitted the essay to a contest. I’d gotten free entry to the contest by participating in a thing, because I don’t normally pay to submit my work. I had not won the contest. In fact, I hadn’t heard who’d won until I looked up the results. But now, the nonfiction editor really liked my piece and would like to publish it.

The contest first prize: $500

What the magazine paid for non-contest publication: $0

I agonized about this in a writers’ group. I felt good about the piece, proud of it. Was it better to take the offer of publication, or to give myself the obligation of submitting to other, paying markets?

Money isn’t the only reason I write, although for me, and at least some other writers, whether or not a venue pays is a primary consideration when determining where to send my work. I also don’t believe that money is a determiner of “good writing.” Many things can identify good writing: whether or not a writer publishes, whether they have the good opinion of other writers or the approval of their teachers, whether they feel good themselves about work that shows growth, that they’re proud of. But simply getting paid is not an indicator of quality writing. Nor is reaching a wide readership.

(Fifty Shades of Grey: roughly 125 million copies sold. The Empathy Exams: 80,000 copies sold.)

Even publication itself is no guarantee of quality. Some writers are published due to gumption, drive, persistence, connections, genre, subject matter, and sheer luck. It is not external validation that determines the quality of our work or anyone else’s. So why do I care whether or not I get paid?

Cash vs. Stuff.

Every job an artist takes, every piece of creative work we make, leads to cash or stuff.

Early-career writers need stuff. Resume credits. Journal titles to list as “work forthcoming in…” in cover letters and queries. Social media clicks and comments, the ego-strokes of seeing our name in print and knowing we wrote something a stranger liked—loved! Showing our mom a magazine and thinking, I did not either waste my time in college.

But mid-career artists need cash. Cash lets us spend less time working our day job, because a $200 check can cover 4-20 hours, depending on what we do. Cash lets us buy Scrivener to organize our manuscript, or upgrade to that pretty Macbook Air so we can write at little Susie’s soccer game. Cash lets us sit in Starbucks all afternoon on a $4 latte while we type-type-type away. Cash buys conferences to connect with agents, and workshops to learn from writers who are a bigger deal than ourselves.

As our work progresses, we need a balance of cash and better stuff. Publication isn’t enough—we want to move from mid-level literary journals to big names, or make the jump to mass media. We want to spend our time drafting a whole book instead of revising an essay for $50. Or if we’re revising the essay, we want it to appear where readers and social clicks are counted in the hundreds of thousands, where we might be noticed by an agent, or somewhere we could be chosen/nominated for an award.

If we’re lucky and privileged, perhaps living somewhere with a low cost of living or with a fully-employed corporate spouse, or on sabbatical, we can focus our search on better stuff, fueled by the safety of having enough cash.

As I debated whether to accept the offer of publication in the journal that didn’t pay, one of the wisest writers I know, Joanne Lozar Glenn, offered another take: Were this journal’s readers my best audience? Was this a chance to share work that would make a difference to an audience that needed to read it?

Joanne’s words helped me decide. The journal, as beautiful as it was, as much as I respected and admired their work and their aesthetic, as much as my essay harmonized with their goals, did not have the size of readership I sought for a piece I cared this strongly about. (Note: I am not that important, but I am that vain.) Giving up a sure thing, a welcome home, was worth the risk of the essay going unpublished, or the hassle of sending it out to more journals. I’d rather take a chance for more cash, or better stuff.

The value of cash vs stuff can only be calculated by the recipient. Your small potatoes may be the largest check another writer has ever received. Your prestigious journal may be someone else’s safety submission. Think about what you need, what makes you feel good, what advances your career. What will make you feel you’ve profited.

Cash, or stuff?


Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. She also leads the Rebirth Your Book writing retreats, and would love to see you and your book in Tuscany in October (4 spots left).

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§ 13 Responses to Cash vs. Stuff

  • As always, Allison, you offer practical advice by considering and balancing multiple factors and perspectives. I had not appreciated “best audience” until now. It does round out the considerations that should guide such decisions. Thank you.

  • rachaelhanel says:

    Well said. Each writer needs to determine his/her own tipping point. At what point do you need cash vs. stuff? I think writers tend to put themselves in the “stuff” category for longer than they should, because they don’t feel confident about their work. I wouldn’t say you’re vain, but you’re confident! You’ve been published, you know you can write, you know your words resonate with readers, so you’re willing to wait to find a better place for your piece.

    Writers need to speak out more for themselves and stop offering their services for free, for that “stuff” that is exposure. I was contacted by a bank (a bank!) to do an event for their top customers. I was asked if I charge a fee, and I said yes and gave the woman a number. She called back and said the two other writers DID NOT charge a fee, so would I be willing to lower my fee so we all could get paid? I did, because I am still getting money and now the other two authors are, too. I know these authors because they live in my community so I will be letting them know why it’s important to charge for their time 🙂 It would be different if it were a non-profit group or for charity, but a bank? Come on!

  • I published a piece I worked on for ten years in a place I had doubts about. I should have followed my gut. This article is proof of that.

  • […] not wrong not to pay. As I wrote here two weeks ago, writers need “stuff”—prestige, resume credit, the experience of working with an editor. Some magazines pay on […]

  • Kara Zivin says:

    I am new to the creative writing world but I work in academic medicine. We are never paid for any of our publications nor for our peer-review service. We often have to pay exorbitant fees for open access journals to take our work. Yet it is expected that we will publish, and journal prestige matters more than anything else for promotions, grant funding, etc. Just a perspective from a different field.

  • Lynette Benton says:

    Thank you for this insightful essay, Allison. I have mourned the fact that I allowed one of my very best essays to be published in a low grade pub. Nice cover, but the inside was pretty poor. And I’m fairly sure now that their readership consisted of 4 people. But one thing that’s bothered me is that it’s impossible to see the demographics for any lit journal. I’d like to have a better sense of the size of their audience and its makeup.

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